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Church History

Where’s Waldo

▪- A.D. 673 to 1453

The period we investigate this week overlaps last weeks. The events surrounding the Crusades were not the only changes affecting the church.  We must remember that God's church is a body of spiritually united people who meet and worship in earthly groups who, at times, are united and, at other times, each others bitter enemies.  A broad picture of this has been seen as we look at the Eastern and Western Empires and their churches.  However, even within local communities, the same splits will arise. Today, there is a church on every corner. Sometimes the differences are close to trivial, but they are differences none-the-less. So, to study church history is to investigate events in more than one location.

At the same time, the church of Dark Ages viewed itself as strongly united, "one, holy, apostolic church." The language of the Creeds reflects this unity and while at the "top" the East and the West might feud, there was, generally speaking, a single unified church – or at worst, two unified churches. As a result, many of the customs of the times finds their ways into all groups and denominations today. So, to study the church of the Dark Ages is to look at individuals and groups and consider how their contributions has blossomed into the good and bad of today's churches.

For example, in 988 Czar Vladimir of Kiev sought religion. A "seeker" in today's terms, he went "shopping" for a church. Tradition holds that the Czar liked his food, so he rejected Islam and Judaism because of their dietary rules. This left him, essentially, with Christianity. He found the "beauty" of the Eastern rituals to be superior to those of Rome, so he chose the Eastern Church. This choice would make the Eastern Orthodox Church the church of Russia into modern day.

Several other tenth-century rulers including Stephen of Hungry, Miesko of Poland and Leif Ericson, the Viking king, all of whom turned to Christianity, followed this approach.

The time of the monasteries was already starting to die as leaders became corrupt and in regions in Britain, Ireland and along the northern European coast, the Vikings would attack and sack. Things picked up around 909 in Aquitaine, France. Duke William III started a new monastery, appointing Berno to be its leader. The monastery was built on the Duke's hunting grounds, Cluny, and the deed of conveyance provided that only the foremost monk, known as the "abbot," had control over the community. 

In the days of the Middle Ages, only the richest men had hunting dogs and hunting grounds. To give these up was to give up one's status.

The rules at Cluny stressed obedience to the Scriptures and Benedict's Rule. Monks who did not abide by these two rules of obedience lost their place at the monastery.  Soon, the neighboring communities began to assess their priests by the same standards, leading to a call for revival within the church. 

Another prominent monk was John Damascus. A committed Christian despite the Muslim rule of Syria, John sided with the "icon-kissers" in the dispute over icons within the Eastern Church. John was one of the few church leaders who could preach on the difference between worship and reverence. He was tried by the Muslim's for treason, a charge based upon a fraudulent letter.  He was exiled to a distant monastery and had his right hand chopped off. 

At the monastery John and his fellow monks sold baskets they made to help the poor. John also wrote hundreds of hymns which became widely used in the churches of the time. His fellow monks became jealous and sent him back to Damascus where the one-handed monk spent his final days selling his baskets on the street corners. 

Meanwhile, in Moravia (Czech Republic) Cyril became a missionary for the Eastern Church (862). Cyril was a Thessalonian Slav and quickly related to the people. Before commencing his missionary efforts, Cyril created a Slavic alphabet so he could translate the Bible into the Moravian language.  This created a conflict with the church at Rome.  The Roman church claimed the Scriptures should only be translated into "holy" languages, such as Latin. 

Cyril and his brother Methodius made a special trip to Rome to appeal to the Roman bishop (the "pope"). The bishop agreed to allow Cyril to so translate the Scriptures into a common language so long as Cyril place his missionary efforts under the control of the pope. While Cyril agreed to this condition, he died before completing his missionary outreach.  Methodius attempted to carry on Cyril's work, but soon discovered that the Moravians could not understand the translations. In 895 Hungarian invaders forced Methodius and his followers to flee to Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria, Boris, the Prince of the land, had accepted Christ, but it is only through the missionary work of Methodius that the Bulgarian people start to accept the Gospel message. Cyril's alphabet was adopted to the Bulgarian tongue and by 900 Cyrillic became the common method of writing in southeast Europe and Russia, while Bulgaria became the center of Slavic Christianity.

While the nobles had no control over the Cluny monastery, the success at Cluny caused a spread of Cluny-type monasteries.  Every noble in France wanted to sponsor one, with the result that the communities became rich. By 1,000 gold and jewels spotted the walls and the poor were forgotten. In 1098 a small group of Cluny monks founded a new community at Cistertium France with the intention of returning to the original Cluny rules.  The group was so strict that they did not dye their robes for fear of appearing wealthy. 

The lifestyle was too strict and the group was on the verge of giving up. No one was joining the community and the Abbot was ready to close the doors. A knock on the door in 1122 changed things. There stood Bernard of Clairvaux with 31 men. Never a bishop, Bernard would lead the church for 30 years in the midst of confusion.

During this period a new group of followers arose. These are collectively known as the Mystics. Mystics arose in every region of the church. The "church" was sustained, in part, during this difficult period of human history by incorporating all of the rituals of worship within its framework. All encounters with God were channeled through the church. Such encounters included Scriptures, sermons, baptism, and communion. However, Christian faith cannot grow in this context alone.  There must be a personal level where emotions play a role. 

This is the field of the mystics. They leaned more on experience than the rituals and rights of organized religion.  These persons and groups were not "outside" of the church, but they placed an emphasis on personal experiences beyond what they encountered within the church. At a positive level, loving God calls for loving Him with your entire being, including your emotions (Mark 12:30). It appears that both Paul and John had such mystical experiences (2 Cor 12:1-9; Rev 1:9-11; 4:1-11). On the other hand, many mystics placed their experiences on a level equal to (or above) the Scriptures and/or the traditions (doctrines) of the church. 

As the Reformation develops, we will note the rise of mystic-like beliefs in the formation of the Quakers.

There is no doubt, however, that mystics helped to mold the modern church as well as helping the medieval church survive. Bernard of Clairvaux was a mystic. He was poor and his positions on God's love endeared him to the peasants, providing him with what amounted to a large power base. Being poor, he was one of those who had been critical of Cluny's lavish lifestyles. His teachings on the love of Jesus caused the people and the church to replace icons of Jesus as an angry judge with pictures of the Baby Jesus and the Crucified Christ.

Bernard's power came from behind the throne. Anacletus II and Innocent II both claimed to be pope. Bernard declared Innocent to be the true pope, a declaration that lasted.  Bernard became the power behind Innocent's reign.

Another mystic of the period was Hildegard of Bingen. She claimed to have visions as a five year old. She spent most of her life in a religious community of which she eventually became the leader or abbess. She was a musician, artist and author. She preached and claimed to be a prophet. Her work, Know the Way, a book of visions was published in 1151.  Although denounced by the Bishop of Mainz when she was 80, the Roman Catholic Church lists Hildegard among the saints. 

Another mystic Catherine of Sienna will play an important role in the welfare of the during the late 1300s. Catherine believed she had visions of supporting the pope. She spent her life seeing to the needs of prisoners, even during the Black Death plague.

About this same time another group of mystics were formed in response to the uselessness of the "scholastics" within the church. This group was Dutch and formed in 1374 as the Common Life Movement. The group denounced corrupt church leaders, but never criticized the church. The group had both Sisters and Brothers. They focused on a personal devotion to Christ known as the Modern Devotion. Thomas A'Kempis was a member of this group. He wrote a devotional guide called The Imitation of Christ, a work still read today.

Joan of Arc was a mystic as well. Her death at the stake by fire was the result of England and France both desiring the church be on their side.  This was in 1431. In 1456 her death by the Inquisition was declared unjust.  In 1920 she became a saint.

To back up a bit in time, mysticism was not the only force influencing the church. In the late 1100s the local feudal system was giving way to larger political systems and a middle class of merchants was appearing, especially in the cities. A new class of preacher arose within the framework known as the "mendicant."  These preachers would travel from town to town preaching to the merchants and peasants of the area. 

One of the most famous was Waldo, also known as Valdes. A French merchant, Waldo was struck by a street singer's corner play about giving away one's wealth, that Waldo followed suit. He committed himself to Christ, became a mendicant and financed a French translation of the Scriptures. 

His study of the Scriptures led Waldo to reject both the doctrine of purgatory and the concept of the pope's supreme power. His followers, the Waldensians, learned Scripture and preached in the common language as opposed to the Latin of the church. Ultimately, the church would condemn Waldo and his followers for failing to preach within the structure of the church. The church would excommunicate the Waldensians at the Fourth Lateran Council and they would become victims of the Inquisition.  However, many of the teachings of Waldo would find root again in the Reformation.

Not all of the mendicants suffered condemnation as did Waldo. A Knight of Assisi had a vision during a march against a rival city. His vision was of the crucified Christ and the vision changed the life of Francis. In 1209 Francis applied to Pope Innocent III for approval of his movement.  The "friars" ("brothers") would own but two tunics apiece so as not to follow in the footsteps of the Clunys.  The Franciscans would become the largest group within the church.

In 1214 Clare received approval from Innocent III to take up the Franciscan lifestyle. The friars would preach and Clare's nuns would attend to the sick. Upon Francis' death, the pope removed Clare's rights to follow the friars. Clare essentially went on a hunger strike and won.  The pope backed down and in 1247 while Clare was on her deathbed, Gregory IX approved her rules for the community to become known as the Poor Clares.

The Dominicans were formed in 1216 and the Augustinian Hermits in 1256.  Martin Luther was a member of this latter group. The Dominicans were the group entrusted by the pope with leading the Inquisition.

There is still a third group who grows up during this period. This group is known as the Scholastics. Human reason was the basis of their investigations and they attempted to balance reason, Scripture and experience. In many ways they were successful and in others they failed miserably. 

The first of these was Anselm, who became the archbishop of Canterbury, England in 1093. Anselm spent about a third of his career in exile for failing to play the "politically correct" agenda. However, his use of logic to prove the existence of God became the foundation for what is now known as the ontological argument or proof of God. He was a compassionate Christian, caring about the people, a trait that makes him unique among this group of thinkers.

The other truly important Scholastic is Thomas Aquinas. A Dominican monk (part of the mendicants), Thomas found himself at odds with his parents who actually kidnapped him away from the Dominicans. He eventually went to the University of Paris, where he eventually became a professor. Using the philosophy of Aristotle (a pure pagan) with the theology of Augustine, Thomas wrote the summation of Theology, a 4,000 page work that was not completed. In 1273, after attending a communion service, Thomas declared his writings "nothing but straw." He never wrote another word, dying three months later. His summation became the basis of Roman Catholic theology. In 1567 the Roman Catholic Church declared him a "doctor" of the church.

Other scholastics included Abelard, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockam.

Lastly, the church itself had issues beyond imagination.

Celestine V, a Franciscan monk, became pope in 1294. True to his position as a friar, Celestine walked into Rome barefoot. The friar could not play the political games of the administration in Rome and after five months, Celestine gave up his position as pope.

Boniface VIII replaced Celestine. Boniface's belief was that the Roman bishop should rule Western society. He issued a Bull that declared the clergy could not be taxed by the secular authorities. Then, in a Bull entitled "One Holy Church," the Pope claimed power over all of Europe's kings.  The king of France disagreed. He kidnapped Boniface who was dead within a month. His successor, Benedict XI, fled Rome and died of poisoned figs.

The next pope, Clement V, fled to Avignon, a village on the border of France and Italy. The popes would rule from Avignon for the next 72 years (7 popes) while friars sold indulgences and the bishops sold positions of leadership. This period becomes known as the Babylonian Captivity of the pope.  

In 1337 Edward III of England, a nephew of the deceased French king, claimed the French throne starting the Hundred Years' War. The War actually lasted 116 years. Ten years later, the plague of Black Death struck Europe and Asia Minor. The plague would last 4 years and claim nearly one-third of the population, almost 24 million people. It is during this period that Catherine of Sienna has her vision of wanting the pope back in Rome.

In 1377 Gregory XI returns the pope to Rome.  His entry may have fulfilled Catherine's vision, but the event starts the next great issue with the office of the pope. Upon Gregory's death, the cardinals wanted a French pope while the people wanted a Roman.  As a compromise, the cardinals elect Urban VI, an Italian (non-Roman) pope. Urban did not pay attention to politics, however. He failed to support the French cardinals. The French withdrew their decision and votes. Going back to Avignon, the French replaced Urban with a Frenchman, Clement VII. Urban refused to be deposed, so now there were two Popes. This period became known as the "Great Papal Schism."

By 1409 all of the cardinals were fed up with having two popes. They met at the Council of Pisa. They declared that the unity of the church did not depend upon the pope.  The Council rejected both claims and elected a new pope, Alexander V. Nether Urban nor Clement relented. Now the church had three popes! All of the popes excommunicated each other! Enter some roots of the Reformation.

John Wycliffe was a professor of philosophy at Oxford. He taught that only the true church could understand the Scriptures. In the process, Wycliffe redefined church to mean every person called to faith in Christ, not those who belonged to the organized church. As such the church was not built upon the popes. In the eyes of some people, Wycliffe was a hero. The church called him a heretic. Although he was put on trial twice, he died without being convicted of heresy. 

John Hus, a Bohemian preacher, embraced Wycliffe's teachings. After preaching Wycliffe's ideas from the pulpit, the church revoked Hus's right to preach. Hus ignored the revocation. A council was called at Constance, Germany. Hus was arrested by the cardinals, despite an offer of safety by the Holy Roman Emperor.  The king's soldiers at the direction of the cardinals would kill Hus. 

However, while they were meeting, the Council of Constance imprisoned Pope who had been appointed by the Council of Pisa. They also deposed the Pope in Rome, retired thePope in Avignon, and elected Martin V as Pope. The year was 1450 and the Great Papal Schism was over. 

One final group of events should be noted. In May 1453 the Ottoman Turks (Muslims) gathered to strike Constantinople. The citizens of the city gathered in the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Several Roman bishops joined their Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters showing a true picture of the meaning of the church.  The Lord's Supper was shared and the night spent in prayer. 

The next day, May 29, Muslims overran the city and an Imam walked slowly through the Church of the Holy Wisdom declaring that Allah was the only god and Muhammad the true prophet.  Overnight the church had become a mosque. It would remain so until 1930. Today the church is a museum, the Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey.

Eastern scholars fled to the west, taking with them their prized Greek manuscripts. The Renaissance had started with a renewed interest in Greek rhetoric, art, and writing. This group became known as "humanists." Words became more important than logic. The focus was on human actions. 

Christian humanists focused upon applying these humanist insights to the Scriptures. Their efforts were supported by the invention of the printing press by John Gutenberg in 1453. Greek and Roman classics and Bibles flooded the market at prices well below those ever before imaginable. 

Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) founded the Vatican Library

Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel

Leo X (1513-1521) builds St. Peter's Basilica and makes other extravagant purchases for what we call the Vatican

The popes supported the Renaissance but missed the opportunity to focus on the Scriptures.  Corruption ruled the day.  Corruption grew worse. The church used the Inquisition to persecute everyone and the sale of indulgences became big business.

Thirteenth Century Events

• This century is often called the high point of the middle ages, with the papacy reaching its greatest power, scholastic philosophy reaching its zenith, and Gothic Cathedrals towering over the landscape. • Crusading cause and spirit continues.

• 1204--Europeans, with Vienna taking the lead, capture Constantinople.

• 1212--Children&s crusade

• Mendicant orders of friars established, another effort at church reform. These reemphasize the importance of the sermon.

• 1209--Francis of Assisi establishes Franciscans (canonized 1228).

• 1220--Dominican Friars established as a teaching order, later entrusted by the Pope with the Inquisition. Some became missionaries to Central Asia, Persian Gulf, India, and China.

• Salisbury Cathedral built within one lifetime (1220-1258), a rarity for medieval cathedrals!

• With Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) the papacy was at the height of its powers. Affirmed all churches were under his control. Developed theory of papal power that allowed him to interfere in political affairs of nations. Approved 4th Crusade. Established Dominicans and Franciscans. Instituted Inquisition, joining powers of church and state to punish heretics.

• 1215--Fourth Lateran Council summarized and reinforced medieval doctrines and practices.

• Thomas Aquinas summarizes Scholastic Theology in his Summa Theologica, 1271, writing, intelligo ut credam "I understand, in order that I may believe."


Source: David Barrett.

Fourteenth Century Events

• The Papacy, having reached its high point with Innocent III (1160-1216), begins a decline under Boniface VIII (c. 1234-1303).

• 1302--Papal bull "Unam sanctum" pronounces the highest papal claims to supremacy

• 1309-1377--"Babylonian Captivity" of papacy. Pope resides in Avignon, France, strongly under the control of the French King.

• 1378-1417--Great Schism, with two or three popes claiming authority.

• The Black Death or bubonic plague ravages Europe; 25 million Europeans, over 1/4 of the population, dies.

• Mysticism flourishes in many areas, especially Germany and the Low Countries.

• Meister Eckhardt teaches the nature of God is unknowable except through the inner knowledge of Himself God has placed in each soul.

• Catherine of Siena has a vision joining her with Christ in a mystical marriage; spends her life in serving others, including trying to end the Great Schism of the papacy.

• Seeking forgiveness from sins, bands of "flagellants" roam the countryside beating themselves as penance.

• 1305-1314--Dante writes his Divine Comedy mirroring the heights and depths of the Christianity of the 13th and 14th centuries.

• John Wycliffe transforms Oxford into the spiritual center of England. Looks to the Scriptures for authority and truth.

• 1382--Wycliffe is expelled from Oxford, translates Bible into English, and trains lay preachers to spread the Scripture.

• 1398--John Hus begins lecturing on theology at Prague University and spreads Wycliffe&s ideas.


Source: David Barrett.

Fifteenth Century Events

• 1414 -1417 - The Council of Constance seeks to end the Great Schism, the embarrassment of having two or three popes competing for authority and power. This same council burns Czech priest John Hus as a heretic and condemns John Wycliffe posthumously.

• Religious beliefs continue to be matters of political concern.

• Thomas a& Kempis& classic Imitation of Christ written.

• 1431 -- French peasant woman Joan of Arc is burned at Rouen as a witch.

• 1453 -- The Turks capture Constantinople and turn St. Sophia Basilica into a mosque. The many scholars fleeing west encourage a revival of classical learning - the Renaissance.

• 1453 -- Johann Gutenburg develops his printing press and prints the first Bible.

• 1479 -- The Inquisition against heresy in Spain set up by Ferdinand and Isabella with papal approval. Under Torquemada Jews are given 3 months to become Christians or leave the country.

• 1498 -- Savonarola burned. He was a great preacher of reform in Florence, Italy.

• Florence under the Medicis becomes the center of Renaissance humanism. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci all create important works of art with Christian themes. At the same time the Medicis become supporters of a papacy more worldly than ever before.

• The Vatican Library is founded by Nicholas V.

• 1492 -- Columbus& voyage and a new age of exploration and Christian expansion begin.


Source: David Barrett.

One Hundred Key Events in Church History


Part 2: From the Crowning of Charlemagne to Henry VIII&s Act of Supremacy

Year and Event


Charlemagne crowned emperor by the pope on Christmas. He advances the church, education, and culture.


Cyril and Methodius, Greek brothers, evangelize the Serbs. Cyril develops the Cyrillic alphabet which remains the basis for the Slavonic used in the liturgy of the Russian church.


A monastery is established at Cluny and becomes a center for reform. By the mid-12th century, there were over 1,000 Clunaic houses.


Conversion of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, who, after examining several religions, chooses Orthodoxy to unify and guide the Russian people.


The East-West Schism. brewing for centuries, rupture finally comes to a head with the fissure that has lasted to this day.


Anselm becomes Archbishop of Canterbury. A devoted monk and outstanding theologian, his Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?), explored the atonement.


Pope Urban II launches the First Crusade. The crowd wildly shouts "God wills it!" There would be several crusades over the next centuries with many tragic results.


Bernard founds the monastery at Clairvaux. He and the monastery become a major center of spiritual and political influence.

about 1150

Universities of Paris and Oxford are founded and become incubators for renaissance and reformation and precursors for modern educational patterns.


Peter Waldo founds the Waldensians, a reform movement emphasizing poverty, preaching and the Bible. He and his followers are eventually condemned as heretics and the Waldensians suffer great persecution for centuries.


Francis of Assisi renounces wealth and goes on to lead a band of poor friars preaching the simple life.


The Fourth Lateran Council deals with heresy, reaffirms Roman Catholic doctrines and strengthens the authority of the popes.


Thomas Aquinas completes work on Summa Theoligica, the theological masterpiece of the Middle Ages.


Dante completes The Divine Comedy, the greatest work of Christian literature to emerge from the Middle Ages.


Catherine of Siena goes to Rome to help heal the "Great Papal Schism" which had resulted in multiple popes. Partly through her influence, the papacy moves back to Rome from Avignon.

about 1380

Wycliffe is exiled from Oxford but oversees a translation of the Bible into English. He is later hailed as the "Morning star of the Reformation."


John Hus, who teaches Wycliffe&s ideas in Bohemia, is condemned and burned at the stake by the Council of Constance.


Johann Gutenberg produces the first printed Bible, and his press becomes a means for dissemination new ideas, catalyzing changes in politics and theology.


The Spanish Inquisition is established under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to oppose "heresy."


Savonarola, the fiery Dominican reformer of Florence, in Italy, is executed.


Michelangelo completes his notable artwork on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome.


Martin Luther posts his ninety-five theses, a simple invitation for scholarly debate that inadvertently becomes a "hinge of history."


Zwingli leads the Swiss reformation from his base as lead pastor in Zurich.


The Anabaptist movement begins. This "radical reformation" insists on baptism of adult believers and the almost unheard of notion of separation of church and state.


Henry VIII&s Act of Supremacy makes the king, not the pope, head of the Church of England.




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